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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden
Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson at a party leaders debate on Swedish television on May 8th. Photo: TT

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Member comments

  1. Why the condescending ‘tiny’ before the Christian Democrats when they poll more than the Greens and similar to the Centre party who didn’t receive the same moniker, if I’m not mistaken?

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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

Swedish opposition seeks deal on new post-election rule

Sweden's opposition leader has called for an agreement with Sweden's Prime Minister that no government should be allowed to form in future if it does not have support in parliament for its budget.

Swedish opposition seeks deal on new post-election rule

Ulf Kristersson, leader of the Moderate Party, said that there should not be a repeat of the situation seen in last two mandate periods, where the Social Democrats have twice had to rule on a budget drawn up by the right-wing opposition. 

“It is not sustainable that a government grips tightly to power when it cannot get its economic policies passed,” he told Magdalena Andersson during Prime Minister’s question time in the Swedish parliament. “Can the two of us agree that no government should take power without having secured support for its economic policies?” 

It was unclear whether this was a serious proposal or a gambit intended to underline the weakness of the government in the run-up to Sweden’s general election in September. 

Securing support for economic policies is arguably more of a challenge for Magdalena Andersson, as two of the parties likely to support her as Prime Minister after the election, the Centre Party and the Left Party, are deeply divided on economic politics, even though they are united on their unwillingness to back a government dependent on the populist Sweden Democrats. 

The Centre Party has supported Andersson as Prime Minister without voting for the Social Democrats’ budget.  

Kristersson’s call comes after the Social Democrats on Wednesday called for its own budget proposition to fall after a compromise on pensions agreed with the Centre Party was blocked by the parliament’s finance committee from being put before parliament. 

“This was a graphic example of the government’s impotence and the decay of government power,” he said.

Sweden’s prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, did not respond to Kristersson’s proposal, but pointed out that after the last election he had failed to establish a government at all. 

“I think that many among the Swedish people wonder what is happening in parliament just now and think that it is chaotic and incomprehensible,” she said. “My ambition is to establish a government that can get through its economic policies.” 

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